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Healthy habit

How to create new habits in 10 steps

This is my first blog. And, as it’s a few days before the start of the new year (2020), I initially thought about topics like ‘new year’s resolutions’, or ‘how we can make 2020 the best year ever.’ And then I thought … what do most of these ideas have in common? Well, yes, it’s often about changing your old, bad habits or, more positively framed, it’s about building and sustaining (!) new, positive habits. As most of my friends know, personally I’m not too much into New Year’s resolutions anyway. What I do commit to quite regularly, irrespective of the time of the year, is anything that can improve my life: i.e. new habits. And those can range from improving my language skills (e.g. 2 year ago, I started improving my French language skills by spending 15-30 minutes each day before work, practicing on the Babble app on my iPhone) to changing my daily working routine (e.g. 2.5 years ago, I decided that working daily from 9am to 11pm was not something I wanted or could to sustain. So I gradually brought that back to a sustainable 9am to 6pm). 
Anyway, changing habits takes focused effort and a lot of those efforts fail. So how can we make these habits sustainable? There’s a lot of books, blogs, websites, studies and research done after this topic. And some of this will come back in my personal list of 10 actions that make it easy for me to sustain those changes:

Step 1 – Pick 1 Single Habit 

Changing your habits or implementing new ones, takes a significant effort and drains your self-control. Ego depletion is a concept from behavioral economics, which studies how people can influence their own emotions, thoughts and behavior through self-control. Studies have found that tasks requiring self-control can weaken this muscle, leading to ego depletion and a subsequently diminished ability for self-control. Hence, if we focus on changing multiple habits at the same time, our supply of will power will be drained so much, that we’ll likely run out of will power to pursue successful implementation of even one of these new habits. Therefore, it’s important to focus on one habit at a time. That way, your willpower can focus on completing that one habit, increasing the odds of success.

Step 2 – Remove Temptation

If you intend changing a bad habit and replacing it with a good one, change your environment, so your bad habit won’t tempt you in your first 60 days. So, for example, throw all your candies, junk food or cigarettes in the garbage (or make your neighbor happy with it), so you don’t have struggle with willpower later. Or, buy new running shoes, or sports gear, to not only increase the success of your daily exercises, but also increase your commitment. The money you spent on your new gear will automatically increase your commitment, as you’ve invested in your new habit.

Step 3 – Commit For AT LEAST 60 Days

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

Popular theory tells us it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a habit. This is based on Dr Maxwell Maltz research in 1960 and published in his blockbuster hit (over 30 million copies sold!), Psycho Cybernetics. More recently, research by Dr Philippa Lally at University College London indicated it took anywhere between 18 and 254 days for people to form a new habit. The real time depends a whole lot on the habit you like to change, the person you are and the circumstances under which you’re trying to implement the new habit. In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, it will probably take you anywhere between 2 to 8 months to implement a new habit. So, I would recommend to apply the  popular and practical 21/90 rule. This rule is simple enough. Commit to a new habit for 21 straight days. Once you’ve established that habit you continue to do that for another 90 days.

Step 4 – Anchor Your New Habit To One Of Your Established Habits

A habit shouldn’t be based on pure motivation, endurance, or a temporary desire. Rather, it should be internalized to the point it becomes pat of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. When cues like time, place and circumstances are the same, it is easier to stick to your habit. For example:

  • Before I start my work, I will meditate for 15 minutes
  • Before I start my work, I will spend 15-30 minutes on my French language app on my iPhone
  • When I’m driving to work, I will listen to a podcast series on self-development

Step 5 – Start Simple

We often don’t realize how unrealistic the goals are that we set for ourselves. For example, we try to stop eating meat altogether, at once. Or we want to run a marathon in 3 months from now, whilst we’ve never run more than 5 miles. How realistic is it that we’ll be able to build a new habit based on such goals? How about, instead we:

  • Stop eating meat 1-2 days a week
  • Start running for 2-3 miles a day

And once we have make that work for ourselves, we increase our target. This is called micro-commitments. The key to implementing sustainable habits is to create micro-commitments where it’s impossible to fail. A great example of this comes from B.J. Fogg PhD (Director Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University) and his ‘Tiny Habits’ concept. What you want to do is to commit to something so easy that it’s impossible to miss a day. And, usually, once you get started, you’ll often do more of it.

Step 6 – Make a Plan B

Creating a new habit isn’t easy. And there are many hurdles we need to take. Some common hurdles are:

  • Cost
  • Time
  • Pain
  • Weather
  • Environment

When we think of our potential obstacles in advance, we can think of a plan B to overcome these. For example:

  • “If it rains, I will run on the treadmill in the gym.”
  • “If I can’t spend time on my French language practice before work, I will do it before dinner.”
  • “If I am too tired to meditate before going to bed, I’ll do it before getting dressed in the morning.”

Step 7 – Run It As An Experiment

We often have a tendency to judge ourselves for not being able to stick to our new habit. How about we agree to withhold judgement until after 30 days and use this time as an experiment in behavior? Experiments can’t fail, they just have different results and will, therefore give us a different perspective on the habit we’re trying to change.

Step 8 – Create Accountability for Your Habit

Track your progress and share your new habit with others. The Hawthorne effect tells that you’re more likely to continue with a new habit, if you’re being observed by others. To continue with your new routine, you should let others know about it. These days, most of us use social media; share it there. Or use smartphone apps like ‘Momentum Habit Tracker‘, ‘Habitica‘ or ‘StickK‘ to track progress, use an accountability partner or training buddy, or post regular updates to an online community related to your new habit. Do whatever it takes to get reinforcement from others in support of your new routine.

Step 9 – Swish

This is an NLP technique (Neuro Linguistic Programming). Visualize yourself performing the bad habit or the habit that you’d like to change. Then, visualize yourself pushing aside the bad habit and performing your new habit. Finally, end that sequence with an image of yourself in a highly positive state. See yourself picking up a cigarette, then putting it down and snapping your fingers, finally visualize yourself running and breathing freely. Do this a few times until you automatically go through the pattern before executing the old habit. This is a great mental activity, in case you feel like giving in on a bad day.

Step 10 – Shape Your New Identity

Don’t worry about all the things you “should” have as habits. Instead tool your habits towards your goals and the things you’re exited about. Weak guilt and empty resolutions are not enough. Neither is repeating a new habit on a daily basis. Yes, adding committing to small actions and having a plan B will get you far. But at some point, you need to move from executing it daily to internalizing it as part of the new YOU. James Clear (NYT best selling author of ‘Atomic Habits’) calls this ‘Identity-based Habits’. Simply put, you need to believe that your new habit is what defines YOU as a unique person. You need to start believing new things about yourself. And most goals are centered around outcomes (e.g. being able to run 10 miles), not identity (e.g. I’m a runner). So, it starts with a shift in mindset. And to reinforce the behavior of your new habit, say things like: “I’m the type of person that does … “. Then follow though by doing it daily. And, after a while, your internal identity will match this daily routine.

Conclusion

As you can see, a lot of material has been published on implementing new habits. And there are hurdles to overcome. And it can be done. The secret is to relate it to something that is important for you, make a commitment to work at that one thing only, on a daily basis and use a series of micro-commitments to increase the chances of success. And finally, to make your new habit part of your new identity.To continue adding value via this website, I will commit to a twice monthly blog post on online entrepreneurship and self-development related topics. And that will require me to build a new blog-writing habit.

And how about you? What new habit will you commit to? What have been your experiences in changing your habits so far? What worked well for you? And what didn’t?

Feel free to leave your comments below.

Sources and further reading on this topic:Develop Good Habits (blog) James Clear (book & blog) Life Hack (blog) Tiny Habits (book & blog)

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